The Taverna Economy

The Taverna Economy

Are you nervous about the idea of a Greek vacation? Don’t be. Economic turmoil notwithstanding, Greece remains one of the world’s most beguiling destinations.

Gripped by austerity, humbled by headlines, this Balkan country is undeniably in crisis. Greek culture is at the heart of modern Europe — politically, culturally, linguistically — but today Greece lies firmly on the Continent’s margin, in terms of both economics and borders. As it wrestles with debt, recession and an ever-larger influx of migrants, Greece essentially wrestles with its role in a remade Europe.

Yet the shimmering vastness of the Aegean, the tranquility of shady whitewashed villages and the olive groves that cling to ancient hillsides remain as alluring to modern visitors as they were for Odysseus.

Readers know that I vacation in Greece frequently — and since the onset of this recession, I find a certain moral satisfaction in supporting an economy in distress. Choosing to spend my vacation dollars on locally caught fish in a family-owned taverna feels like a tiny, personal contribution to tikkun olam on a micro level. Does the taverna owner pass along all the taxes on that fish? Probably not. Is his business vital to his family and to a lovely, historic and welcoming community? Undoubtedly.

During sojourns along the Mediterranean, I have had ample occasion to contemplate austerity’s bitter yield. My family and I were in Greece two months ago; with resorts full of sunburnt Northern European tourists, we might never have known there was a crisis underway.

But even the most sheltered tourist cannot fail to notice the angry graffiti, the mobs in public squares waving signs and chanting, the odd trashcan set aflame. Smart travelers know not to be afraid; a few blocks away in any direction, life goes on as usual. A tourist in Athens or Barcelona still has more to fear from pickpockets than from protesters.

The real damage is more subtle. As I have witnessed — and as many economists have observed — austerity has had a profoundly negative effect on societies from Spain to Greece. What looks to Germans like fiscal discipline looks to Spaniards, Greeks and others like a self-perpetuating cycle of contraction. Workers get laid off; there are fewer consumers to spend money on restaurants and books and taxis; restaurants and bookstores go out of business, taxi drivers sit idle, and even fewer consumers remain to propel the economy forward.

Society goes on, but there is less of everything. Train and bus schedules are cut, making rides more crowded and less frequent. The little niceties are gone: no reception after the concert or book talk, no bonus at holiday time for the manager.

But the biggest casualty of all is hope. An entire generation of educated young people migrates elsewhere — a phenomenon that resonates strongly with Jews, whose history of economic migration has lately been eclipsed by the flight-from-persecution narrative.

As travelers, every dollar we spend in a distressed society is a small weapon against the scourge of hopelessness. And the relaxation you can buy on these Mediterranean shores is a pleasant investment indeed.

All right, you may ask — but can I actually get the cash to pay my hotel bill? For 2015 visitors to Greece, bank closures and restrictions on ATM withdrawals are the most significant challenge. At press time, Greek banks were still subject to closures and cash withdrawal limits — a situation made all the more bothersome by the reality that Greece is still a mostly cash-based society.

You can usually use your Visa or MasterCard at gas stations, in larger stores and at many businesses in resort areas, though I have found American Express to be basically useless outside of international chains. But cash is essential.

The good news is that euros are widely available elsewhere. So if you expect to be in Greece, plan ahead: Drop by an American Express office or change bureau to purchase euros before your trip, or use an ATM in another country before entering Greece (an airport connection can be useful for this). While there, use plastic whenever possible to conserve your cash on hand.

The ubiquity of cash is not coincidental to Greece’s current situation. You may notice, as I did, a striking disconnect between the poverty trumpeted in headlines and the visible affluence of Greek society. Despite their troubles, Greeks look comfortable — and over time I understood that what comfort exists stems in no small part from a culture where private wealth, earned in a gray economy, is often hoarded in euro notes.

That’s the paradox of corruption: it enriches the individual and impoverishes the society. Regardless of policy proposals, Greece will ultimately have to rebuild from the inside out, spiritually as well as economically, one taverna at a time. It’s a situation far too complex for this traveler to resolve — but I am happy to do my small part, raising a glass of ouzo to a post-austerity future.

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